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k/9 instinct

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junior spivey launched one through the thin desert air and over the wall last night in the 2d inning of memphis' 7-6 loss to tucson. it was his first homer in nearly 11 months; he last went deep on june 26 of last year, off the blue jays' gustavo chacin. the blast briefly tied him in that category with john gall, who was shamed into hitting his 2d of the season three innings later. for whatever it is worth -- surely not much -- spivey also had two doubles a couple of nights ago . . . .

down at double a, mark worrell blew a 6-4 lead in the 9th with an uncharacteristic bout of wildness -- four walks, the last two of which forced home the tying and winning runs. in taking his 2d loss of the season, worrell nearly doubled his walk total; prior to last night he had issued just 5 free passes all season long. springfield remains in 1st place by 2 games.

with the mets opening a three-game set at busch tonight, i can't resist returning to one of my favorite fixations: strikeouts and postseason performance. i mounted that particular hobby horse a few times during the off-season (at greatest length here, but it has been a while; forgive me if you've heard it all before.

the mets lead the majors in strikeouts per 9 innings by a very wide margin; the cardinals currently stand 25th in that category among the 30 mlb teams, and 15th among the 16 national league clubs. new york's strikeout rate of 8.33 batters per 9 innings is half again as high as the cardinals', who whiff a paltry 5.57 per 9. that's nearly three strikeouts a game -- an entire inning off each night for the new york defense; an entire inning's worth of batted balls that can't get lucky and fall between fielders.

the cardinals' la russa-led playoff teams have all ranked pretty low in k/9: their best finish was 6th place in 2000. last year they were 13th; in 2004 they were 10th; the '02 and '01 teams were 12th and 10th, respectively. but the '06 edition has a ways to go to rise even to the k/9 standards of its predecessors. the cards currently trail the 14th-place nl team (the dodgers) by 0.5 k/9 -- half a whiff a game. they are a full strikeout per 9 shy of the league median (florida, at 6.61 a game).

can a team that ranks this low in k/9 go anywhere once the postseason begins? how often do teams that finish in the bottom fourth of the league in k/9 win their league's pennant? i looked at the last 50 pennant winners, going back to 1979 (and excluding strike-marred 1981, an aberrant season):

DISTRIBUTION OF PENNANT WINNERS
BY K/9 QUARTILE

quartile pennants world
titles
1st 27 15
2d 9 7
3d 6 3
4th 8 1

of the last 50 pennant winners, 36 (or 72 percent -- nearly 3/4) have finished in the top half of the league in k/9; only 8 (16 percent) have come from the bottom quartile, where the 2006 cardinals are mired. but the numbers are far from discouraging if we just isolate the national league; the bottom quartile has produced 6 of the last 25 nl pennant winners -- ie one quarter, which means there has been no prejudice against them. more encouraging yet (i guess), 3 of those 6 have been cardinal teams: the herzog-led pennant winners of 1982, `85, and `87. (la russa's 2004 league champ finished 10th in k/9, in the 3d quartile.)

note, however, that all three of those teams played in the 1980s, which seem to have been something of a low-strikeout decade; 7 of the 20 pennant winners between 1980 and 1990 (again, excluding 1981) placed in the bottom k/9 quartile. the game has changed a bit since the 1980s . . . . . if we only consider the last 15 years (the last 28 pennant winners), baseball has produced just one pennant winner from the bottom k/9 quartile -- the 2002 san francisco giants. gack.

there is an obvious bias in these numbers, viz.: the bottom quartile rarely produces pennant winners in large part because the bottom quartile produces fewer playoff teams to begin with. once a low-k/9 team does get into the playoffs, what then? again going back only 15 years, there have been 25 teams from the bottom half of the league in k/9 -- the 3d and 4th quartiles -- who got into the playoffs. those teams have played 35 playoff series and won only 12 of 'em -- a .343 winning percentage. and it's not as if these were particularly bad teams who snuck into the playoffs with poor chances of success; 15 of the 25 won 95 games or more, 6 won 100 or more, and 8 had their league's best record. as a group, these 25 teams would be expected to win 18 series at a bare minimum.

yet they combined to win just 12.

and that's from the bottom half of the league. the 2006 cards are in the bottom quartile, which last produced a world champion in 1982 -- the cardinals, who finished dead last in k/9. they were fortunate enough to face a team in the fall classic from the 3d k/9 quartile -- the brewers, who finished 11th out of 14 teams. since then, the only k/9 finishers from the bottom two quartiles to claim a world championship were the '91 minnesota twins, who placed 10th out of 14 american league teams that year, and the 2002 anaheim angels, who placed 9th out of 14 teams -- and whose opponents in the world series were the aforementioned '02 giants, the only bottom-quartile-dwelling pennant winner since 1990.

well, i guess i've beaten this one sufficiently to death by now. the cards' extremely low k/9 rate in 2006 is a major concern. it renders them a much less dangerous playoff team than they might otherwise appear. for that reason, i would argue (for the umpteenth time) that a power pitcher -- either for the rotation or the pen -- has to be the cards' top priority in the trade market.